Brian Stelter of CNN recently reported that Lester Holt, filling in as anchor of NBC Nightly News, was doing well in the ratings, so well that it would be hard for NBC to hand the job back to Brian Williams when he returns from his six-month suspension for making stuff up. According to Stelter’s sources, there is a lot of support for Holt among the rank and file at NBC News.
“This makes it impossible for them not to give it to Lester, if this continues,” one of them said.
I don’t make predictions and I have no sources inside NBC News telling me what is likely to happen, but looking at the whole episode (which I have written about before) there is no plausible way NBC News can restore Brian Williams to the job of anchoring the nightly news and serving as “face of the brand.” I’m not saying it won’t happen, only that NBC would be insane to do it.
Three reasons. Put them together, and I see no way Steve Burke, CEO of NBC Universal, can bring Williams back. By all accounts it will be Burke’s call. Here is what he has to get over:
1. Williams didn’t care if what he was saying about his experiences in Iraq was true. I think that’s the right way to put it. He did not have sufficient regard for truthtelling as the sacred duty of news people everywhere. He chose “makes a good story” (and “look at me, mom!”) over “what actually happened.” He did this not once but many times. For a journalist leading a network news division that by itself is a huge problem.
2. Williams dishonored the courage and sacrifice of NBC war correspondents. This violates another sacred duty in big league journalism. And that is to recognize that those who routinely place their lives on the line by basing themselves in conflict zones — reporters, producers, photographers, fixers — are in a different moral category from those who parachute in when there’s a big story, or those who, say, sacrifice their social lives by working long hours. By imagining himself in more danger than he really was, Williams demonstrated that he did not have sufficient regard for these differences. That too is a huge factor weighing against him, especially within the peer culture at NBC, which he is supposed to lead and inspire.
Still, it’s at least conceivable that these two difficulties, serious though they are, could be surmounted with the right kind of apology and public reflection by Williams upon his return. He could show that he knows how badly he screwed up and try to restore himself to good standing through a searching self-examination, conducted in public through a speech, interview or broadcast report. There wasn’t any sign of that when the story broke (his initial apology was disastrous) but we haven’t heard from Williams since the gravity of the situation sunk in, so we don’t know how far reaching his self-reflections are.
But I see no way of surmounting…
3.) Williams doesn’t believe that anchoring the news is a big enough job for him. It’s been reported, it’s been chuckled about, but I don’t think we appreciate how damning this paragraph is. From Gabriel Sherman’s March 8 story in New York Magazine:
Comedy would have been a path out of [Tom] Brokaw’s shadow. A few years ago, Williams told Burke he wanted to take over the Tonight Show from Jay Leno. Burke dismissed the idea and instead offered Williams a weekly prime-time program called Rock Center. Williams hoped it might develop into a variety show. But Rock Center ended up more like a softer 60 Minutes, and it was canceled after two middling seasons. Undeterred, Williams pitched CBS CEO Les Moonves about succeeding David Letterman, according to a high-level source, but Moonves wasn’t interested.
Amazing. Twice Brian Williams tried to escape from the anchor’s job to a position more attractive to him— and, in his mind, more befitting his talents. Leaving aside his delusions about what it takes to succeed at comedy night after night, this attempt to defect from the state of news to the entertainment sphere is disqualifying on its face. Television news is full of ambitious people. The most ambitious want to be on camera. The most ambitious of those want to be anchors or show hosts. And the most ambitious of those want to anchor the nightly news for 7-10 million people per night plus $5 to $10 million a year.
In many more ways than one, the job Williams had is the top job in network news, but it wasn’t enough. He wanted a different job, at the summit of stand-up comedy, making and breaking the careers of all the strivers below while getting big laughs himself as the slick pro behind the fake desk. Like Letterman, like Leno, like Jon Stewart, his Jersey pal.
Put yourself in Steve Burke’s chair. You have learned that in news the guy to whom your company gave the top job doesn’t really desire it. He would rather be doing something else. Now you have to decide whether to bring him back from suspension. You have this report on your desk that documents how he made up stuff about himself, deeply embarrassing your network. And he insulted the courage of your most heroic employees by stealing some of it for personal aggrandizement. The rank and file is cheering for his replacement. Plus, he doesn’t want you. He wants late night comedy more.
Is that even a hard call?